Polar bear sighting surprises Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villagers

By the time Philomena Keyes' skiff arrived Tuesday night to see the polar bear near the mouth of the Yukon River, other villagers were already there in boats of their own snapping cell phone pictures.

"We never saw a polar bear before. I mean only in the zoo, but not out in this area," said Keyes, who grew up on the Lower Yukon and heard about the bear over the VHF radio in Emmonak.

She motored toward the Bering Sea with her mother and sons to see the animal -- one of multiple reports this summer of polar bears along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Such appearances are rare but not unheard of in the region, where a few polar bears are seen every three to five years, said Thomas Evans, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service polar bear program.

Polar bears normally stick to the main pack ice off Alaska's northern coast as a year-round platform to hunt, then follow the expanding ice south during the fall and winter. They normally head north when the ice begins to retreat around late June or early July, Evans said.

The bear or bears spotted in Western Alaska this summer were likely hunting for ringed and bearded seals on ice pans along the nearby coast and were forced ashore when the ice broke apart, he said.

While Evans didn't directly link the bear's appearance to global warming -- the same thing might have happened 20 years ago -- the biologist expects climate change to increase summertime bear sightings along Alaska's shores.

As temperatures change, the more stable multi-year ice shrinks, leaving thinner annual ice, he said. Polar bears will increasingly be forced to stay on the pack ice and follow it out past the continental shelf or come to shore, Evans said.

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